Difficult facets of humanity have become popular themes in gaming’s present day between “The Last of Us,” “Gone Home” and recently “That Dragon, Cancer.” “Firewatch” doesn’t wade into that territory. It dives headfirst. From its first moments on, it’s stuck in that established tone and struggles to escape from it. If a game’s story wants to appeal to the player’s emotion, it’s best if the future of that story grows from a centralized theme. In “Firewatch’s” case, the 90% of the game that follows a five-minute introduction has little to do with its early emotional ploy, which cheapens the effect.
The game begins by painting a picture of love with only words. It tells a story of Henry and Julia who fall in love, settle down together and have arguments like every couple but remain loving companions. Details of the relationship can be chosen by the player, such as what approach you would take in an argument, what kind of dog you would choose, or if you want to have children. This adds a personal touch to the story, which makes the payoff more emotional when it’s revealed that the wife Julia is suffering from early onset dementia.
The struggle takes its toll on the relationship, eventually splintering it completely. Julia’s parents step in to take Julia back to Australia to live with them leaving Henry alone with little purpose in his life. Searching for anything he can grab ahold of, he responds to an ad for a forest fire lookout job, a job that calls for keeping one’s head during long bouts of isolation. Henry takes the job where he’s alone with his thoughts and a two-way radio, which introduces him to a new friend.
“Firewatch” consists of Henry exploring the wilderness world of his outpost. He has his compass and a seemingly magical map that shows his current location at all times. The map becomes as essential as walkie talkie. On the other end of the walkie is his superior and closest friend for the summer months Delilah. Delilah is a friendly boss who doesn't mind personal conversation and comedic wisecracks. Being isolated in nature with nobody to speak to other than themselves allows for the two of them to become close during their professional time.
Being a forest fire lookout is also a job. Henry has to check for mischief whether it's skinny dippers, litterers or the biggest threat: kids setting off fireworks. He does this by reporting findings and chatting with Delilah over the radio. Having the whole woods to explore appears to be a daunting task at first, but much of the map is blocked off by thick brush and trees. The paths are pretty straight forward, and it doesn’t take long before you learn your way around the environment.
The environment of “Firewatch” is gorgeous on PS4 and PC. Henry will explore the wilderness at different times of day, creating a different shade of sunlight that bounces off the trees and waterways. Seeing the woods in a different light almost makes the areas seem brand new. The game doesn’t have a clock or day and night phases, but different days will show the wood at a different time of day.
Eventually the inevitable happens. Henry and Delilah become close. She’s a humorous, faceless female and Henry is a male with a wife who can’t remember who he is. They are roughly the same age. Their relationship status is complicated. In their lives, they are each other’s life raft in a sea of nothing else. Their friendship ticks closer to turning romantic like a time bomb directly after their initial greeting over the two-way.
The story of Henry and Delilah meanders through “will they” or “won’t they” territory throughout the game and eventually burns up due to questionable circumstances. Delilah clings to the memory of a lost former lookout; not one that she was romantic with, but one that eventually ruins any chance of her pursuing a future with Henry. Her explanation makes little sense given the way her past is experiences are depicted. Henry on the other hand who took the job in an attempt to move on with his life makes no progress at all. The most frustrating thing about that is it’s not his fault. He tried, but the story is structured in a way that prohibits him from having any type of closure. The game creates the illusion of player choice early on, but the ending plays out in a bafflingly specific way.
The lush environments of “Firewatch” are a joy to explore, but the story at the heart of the woods leaves something to be desired. The early emotion felt in the game’s intro loses its trail among a bramble of side plots and head scratching character decisions. “Firewatch” gets lost like Henry on his first day on the job.
6.5 out of 10